The fake meat fad: What it is and where to find it
Two cows walked into a bar.
One said to the waiter, “I’d like a burger, please.”
The other cow said, “That’s cannibalism!”
The first cow responded, “No, that’s Impossible!”
In 2016, Impossible Foods Inc., a company that develops plant-based substitutes for meat, launched its signature product: The Impossible Burger. In the past year, the company garnered greater attention and demand with its development of the Impossible Burger 2.0 and the sale of the burger at Burger Kings across the country.
A competing company, Beyond Meat, released its own version of a meatless patty resembling beef in 2014. Similarly, Beyond Meat recently increased in popularity as it has stocked the shelves of grocery stores and entered the menus of popular chains like Dunkin’.
Both companies sell a patty intended to mimic the taste and texture of a normal beef patty. People with diet restrictions that prevent them from eating animal-based products can consume their foods. Additionally, their products have less of a negative environmental impact than regular patties have.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations claims that greenhouse gas emissions coming from livestock production make up 14.5% of the globe’s total greenhouse gas emissions. Cattle represent 65% of the livestock sector’s total emissions. In proportion to the total amount of livestock emissions, 44% are in the form of methane, which the digestive systems of cows and sheep naturally emit. The rest of the emissions are mainly in the form of nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide.
Plant-based meat substitutes pose a remedy to the growing concern over the increasing amounts of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and the associated climatic effects.
“You wouldn’t have to have pastureland [for plant-based meat substitutes], you would definitely need less water and greenhouse gas emissions would be lower,” Associate Professor of Food Science Rolf Joerger said.
Joerger said that some researchers have questioned whether meat substitutes actually emit less greenhouse gases than regular burgers. He said that while the production of plant-based meat substitutes produces far less methane than that of regular beef, it does emit carbon dioxide, which comes from the burning of fossil fuels.
He said that researchers argue that in the short-term, methane is worse in terms of the greenhouse gas effect, but in the long-term, methane disappears from the atmosphere whereas carbon dioxide can stay in the atmosphere for hundreds of years. Thus, these researchers argue that producing substitutes for meat may have a harmful environmental effect.
Joerger said, however, that this is just one study and there are a number of uncertainties with it.
“In the overall computation, in terms of land use, water use and probably energy use, you definitely will have a lot less impact on the environment with these plant-based meat substitutes than you have with regular beef,” he said.
The plant-based meat substitutes of Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat have distinguished themselves from veggie burgers and have appealed to environmentally-conscious meat consumers because of their specific chemistry that gives them a meat-like taste and feel.
Joerger said that numerous factors contribute to the meat-like experience of these patties. First, they have similar amounts of protein to regular beef patties and the protein of these substitutes are structured so that they feel like regular meat. The substitutes have numerous proteins sources, including beans, rice protein and soy, according to Joerger.
Joerger said that fat is another important component of the patties. They have saturated fats, like coconut oil or coconut butter, so that at room temperature the fats are solid, but when cooked, they melt and mimic the fats of a regular burger.
The other components of the Impossible Burger and Beyond Burger are included to enhance the meat flavor, add color, or hold the patty together, according to Joerger.
The inclusion of gum and starch in the patties makes them more stable. To imitate the flavor of meat and to give the patty a red color, the Impossible Burger has a molecule called leghemoglobin, which comes from the symbiosis of genetically-engineered yeast and bacteria. Joerger said that some people express concern over the genetic engineering of the yeast, but does not find that most people take issue with this.
The leghemoglobin binds with oxygen to produce the characteristic red-meat color and it also produces a similar flavor profile to that of the hemoglobin found in regular beef. Beyond Burger uses beet juice and a natural red dye called annatto to produce the red coloring.
Joerger said that many people flock to these substitutes for ethical reasons, environmental reasons and health reasons. While he said that these patties are not necessarily more nutritious than regular patties because they contain high amounts of saturated fats, they do contain a lower amount of cholesterol than that of regular patties.
University alumnus, Weber Stibolt, works at Beyond Meat, and the Food Science club recently invited him as a guest speaker for its meeting, food science club members Brianna LiBrizzi and Jordan Allen said.
LiBrizzi and Allen said that they have tried plant-based meat substitutes before, and while they do find the similarities between the substitutes and regular beef striking, they do not see themselves completely switching to plant-based burgers any time soon.
LiBrizzi, president of the Food Science Club, said that the texture and the high sodium content of plant-based substitutes factor into her decision not to entirely switch to these substitutes.
Allen, public relations chair and alumni relations chair of the Food Science Club, said the extra cost of the substitutes encourages her to purchase regular beef burgers instead.
“On the college student budget, we don’t have the money to be spending on these new products,” Allen said. “I don’t believe our dining halls will ever spend money [on these products] if they can get veggie burgers or black bean burgers for much cheaper.”
Joerger said the dining halls may adopt the Impossible Burger or the Beyond Burger if several factors line up.
“If students ask for it, … if the price goes down further, that might be the reason it shows up more,” Joerger said.
Currently, several locations near campus sell the Beyond Burger or the Impossible Burger.
Nearby grocery stores that sell the Impossible Burger or Beyond Burger are ACME, Food Lion, Safeway, ShopRite and Target.
Restaurants that sell the Impossible Burger or the Beyond Burger include Denny’s, Dunkin’, Subway, TGI Fridays, Applebee’s Grill + Bar, Burger King, Little Caesars, Qdoba, Red Robin and The Cheesecake Factory.
Aramark, the company that operates the university’s dining services, said that their “chefs are using products, like Beyond Meat’s delicious burgers, sausage, crumbles and more, to expand menu selections and provide the choices that meet individual lifestyle and dietary preferences on college campuses”
Melanie Ezrin, president of Students for the Environment, said that while she does applaud the environmental impact of the Beyond Burger and the Impossible Burger, she would not encourage students to totally cut red meat out of their diet if they do not want to.
“Switching your priorities and perspectives is a really good thing, but fully making the switch all of the time, that’s nothing something that I would advocate for on a human basis,” Ezrin said. “Although, environmentally, in an ideal world, that would be the right thing to do.”
Rather, she said she would urge students to try out the substitutes and make one small change in their lives to help the environment.
“[That could be] just saying, no matter what it is, on Mondays at lunch, I will not have any sort of meat protein,” Ezrin said. “That makes a difference.”